Friday, May 6, 2011

Unlikeable Protagonists and Insignificant Stories

Driving to and from work every day, I like to listen to audio-books. I enjoy those way more than the incessant and uninteresting ramblings of a radio-host in between smatterings of hip-hop-dance-beat music.

Except for this last audio-book. I only finished it because I’ve listened to the others at least twice and wanted to know whether maybe - just maybe - the protagonist would manage to redeem herself in by the end of Disc 4. No such luck. I’ve never disliked a protagonist of a story more.

The story itself wasn’t one of the best; there was no real conflict the protagonist had to go through, and several of the subplots weren’t in the least important to her development - they weren’t even real subplots. Characters were introduced but played no role whatsoever in getting Miss Snooty off her high horse (which never happened). The whole story, in short, had no real raison d’être. Surprising, really, considering this story got an average four-star review on Amazon, and I’ve loved other books by this author. (Maybe that’s another reason why I’m so disappointed: I was really looking forward to this story.) Just goes to show how subjective this book-business is.

Still, if the main character had been likeable, I might have enjoyed this book well enough. And yes, characters are supposed to go through personal growth and development of some kind, and be “human”, i.e. have quirks and faults and unusual habits. But this one had not only one fault, but several, and all of them were something I couldn’t relate to; she was entirely self-centered, unfocused and contradictory in big, inconsistent ways. Her most annoying (and repulsive, IMO) trait was a spiteful delight at other peoples’ - even her friends’ - misfortunes. Good things came into her life by accident, rather than that she had to work or fight for them, which meant she didn’t mature at all. She didn’t have to.

Okay, enough rambling. I had a different goal for this post than yammering about this unappealing character. I meant to glean some lessons from this story for my own writing:

Characters don’t have to be likeable to be interesting, but relatable. The best stories give even the baddy a sufficient, sensible reason for being evil. The reader has to understand a character’s actions and reactions in order to feel “invested” in the story.

Say your character is the biggest loser in town - possibly the premise for an interesting story. But if this character doesn’t see the light and instead tells everybody else they or their friends are such losers… sorry, but if I met this person in real life, I’d walk the other way.

And that’s the crux of the matter, in my opinion. Nobody can force a reader to become invested in a book. If a protagonist isn’t somebody the reader wants to spend time with, s/he won’t. In real life, you can’t always get away from people you don’t like, but a book is easily put down, never to be opened again.

So, summing up what I’m taking from this disappointing story with its unappealing protagonist:

1. A story needs conflict. No conflict = why bother?
2. A character needs motives. No motives = no reason for (re-)action = why bother?
3. The plot needs to further the character’s development. Insignificant storylines/plot points/characters = can you guess?

What would you add to this list of lessons? What are other characteristics that annoy you in a protagonist or main character?

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